Friday, April 29, 2011

Google and Apple

Seems to be a common thread right now that if Apple is caught with their pants down, the response is "But... but... Google..."

I want to highlight the major differences between the two major corporations, and ask whether it's really fair to put them in the same category.

Apple is attracting criticism because if you buy their products and services, you inevitably run into restrictions on how you can use them. With the Mac, it's relatively liberal, save for the fact that the operating system can't be transfered to entirely compatible (and better) hardware made by someone other than Apple. But with the iPhone and other iOS devices, it's actually gotten fairly nasty. You can't install applications unless Apple decides they're OK (and Apple has, in the past, rejected applications on political grounds, until outcries have forced them to change course.) You can't develop for it without paying a $100 tax. Every effort has been made to prevent you from modifying or customizing your device, and making it your own. And Apple has been throwing its weight around in the patent front too: despite not inventing the "smartphone", it seems to believe that it owns the concept.

I don't want to understate what Apple did when designing the iPhone, they came up with some good ideas that hadn't been tried before, and deserve credit for that. But, well, Palm was making touchscreen phones for years (hell, I considered getting one when I was on Sprint, and that was in 1999!) I remember Ericsson experimenting with touchscreen (not stylus screen) phones in the late nineties too. Nokia produced a number of non-touchscreen Internet-based smartphones such as the 9000 series - I was a proud owner in 1997. The company that probably did the most to popularize the Internet-enabled phone was RIM, who also suffered the most grief, in the shape of outrageous patent lawsuits, for doing so. Danger Inc, creators of the T-Mobile Sidekick, also deserves an enormous amount of credit.

So I get a little testy when I hear that Apple somehow invented the concept and has the right to throw its weight around. It came up with an interesting interface, and many devices since have taken some of those ideas on board. The iPhone, however, is nonetheless built upon the shoulders of giants.

Now, what's the big bad thing Google has done? Well, Google's critics use a specific phrase when condemning the company. They claim Google is collecting data about each of us in order to "sell it to advertisers".

Bullshit.

It's sophistry. I've advertised using Google, and I can tell you right now at no point did Google ever offer me the chance to find out anything about anyone who clicked or saw my ads beyond the most basic metrics you'd expect. Which is as it should be.

Google offers some interesting products, like Google Analytics, that provide some metrics about how users use your sites, but even those (a) aren't tied to advertising, and (b) don't tell you anything beyond paths people are using to get to your sites and what they're doing when they get there. I can't tell from GA that President Obama accessed my blog after clicking on a link at Hotbabes.com.

Is Google collecting data? Of course. Is it providing it to advertisers? No. What it's using it for, at worst, is to improve the quality of their advertising product, to say to advertisers "We're going to use the statistics we have at our disposal to ensure your ad will be displayed to the most appropriate audience."

And how is it doing this? Well, by providing a range of compelling products, for free. And sometimes for not-free - Google's model is not pure advertising, they're also monetizing Google Apps (the business version), the Android Market, Google Books, Google App Engine, the international calling part of Google Voice, and they've had Google Checkout for as long as I remember.

I don't think the two companies are remotely close. The main ethical (probably not even moral) issue Google has is that it has the data it's collected, and there's always the risk that data will leak. The data has been provided voluntarily, in exchange for very good services, and arguably benefits Google's users, in that there's nothing wrong with being presented with ads for stuff you actually want.

The main ethical and moral issue Apple has is that they're constricting, They want to control their users, and people who buy their products end up suffering from unnecessary bonds of usage and censorship because... well, I don't honestly know why Apple does it, I don't think they should.

That's quite a difference.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Withdrawing a recommendation

In the past, whenever the subject of Internet service has come up, I've generally recommended Earthlink. They weren't perfect, but they weren't overly restrictive - they blocked one port - outgoing SMTP (but incoming was fine - you could run your own domain), and things like IPv6 (via 6to4) generally worked fine.

I don't know what's happened, but they've gone to crap. I wanted to move my service to my new address. They took down all the details, told me it'd be done in a week and a half, and I never heard from them again. Two weeks later, I called, they cheerfully notified me that I'd been disconnected, acted as if I'd never called and wasted 30 minutes on the phone with a CS rep who'd assured me it would all be done, and, well, went through the process again.

Except they couldn't because their computer was down, so the Earthlink guy told me they'd call me back.

Guess what, they didn't.

I'm sorry, but is Earthlink a going concern any more? Are they interested in keeping customers, or are they just phasing themselves out?

BTW my call yesterday was the third time. I tried calling them just before the move too, but was told to call back after I'd moved.

And much as I hate to rag on Indian call centers, there's definitely something substandard going on, in my experience, dealing with them. I suspect it has to do with the fact that it doesn't really feel important that someone's going to stop paying $50 a month to your employer when you get a dollar or two an hour, and are rewarded, not for keeping a customer happy, but for closing your calls as quickly as possible. The latter is also true of US call centers, but there seems to be a customer service ethic that Earthlink's US call centers had that simply wasn't there when I tried calling Lenovo some months ago, or Earthlink the last few weeks.

Mind you, I have no idea what was going on with Comcast today. First attempt to get service: CS rep closed the chat session. Second: CS rep refused to go further unless I turned up at a center with the deed to my house (no, seriously. I'm not making this up. Want to know why? It's even more ridiculous: the previous owner of my house owes Comcast $1.77. You read that right. Not $177,000. Not $177. $1.77.) Third guy took the order but still wants me to visit a center with the deed to the house.

I'm not a happy Squiggleslash right now. Not happy at all.

Good and bad bubbles

So, continuing the economics theme...

Went through a little thought experiment today. Let's imagine two alternate universes. Both have companies called Squigglerail, whose purposes is to build and run a high speed railway line from Miami to New York City.

(Why a railway? Because it's my fantasy, OK? Insert whatever you want here, but make sure it's similar.)

In Universe One, Squigglerail raises billions from investors, and plans to start by running a free passenger service while it determines the best way to monetize the system. The system is built, and the first services run for a few years, with Squigglerail gradually introducing systems based upon advertising, and premium services.

Needless to say, Squigglerail is amazing popular, but hemorrhages cash, and finally goes bankrupt three years later. With the principle proven, Slashco buys Squigglerail's assets for a song, and starts, you know, charging customers, and closing down unprofitable services. Ten years later, there's a functioning railway system that didn't exist before, it's delivering billions in value every year, and everyone's glad it exists, although there are some very upset investors.

Now, let's go to Universe Two. Squigglerail raises billions from investors, and carefully choses a business model that involves selling transit services to passengers, who buy these things called "tickets" and then are allowed to ride the train. The system is slow to start, but becomes profitable after three years, and a decade later, there's a functioning railway system that didn't exist before, it's delivering billions in value every year, and everyone's glad it exists, especially the Squigglerail investors.

Universe Two is obviously better than Universe One. But is Universe One worse than Universe Zero, where there was no Squigglerail?

Obviously, in one and two, there's something that's worth far more than was paid to make it. The only difference is that in one scenario, a bad monetization model leads one particular group of people to lose money (the investors), while delivering massive value to an even larger group of people (the riders.) In the other, the riders benefit less than they did in U1 (which is OK, because they still benefit - if they didn't, they wouldn't see the tickets as worth spending money on), and the investors don't lose anything.

I posit this rather contrived scenario because I was thinking of the two bubbles I've seen in the last decade and a half. Both caused large numbers of people to lose ridiculous amounts of money. The thing is though, that despite the problems investors had, I think - overall - the country was better off during and after the .com bubble than it would have been had the .com bubble not happened.

This isn't true of the housing bubble. That just swallowed money.

The difference? In the .com boom, as with Squigglerail, something was actually made, of enormous value, that caused growth, it's just bad monetization meant that investors had no way to share in the growth they funded.

The housing boom generally involved something that already existed, with only a superficial rise in value, and it existed largely because of supply and demand, not economic growth. So the housing bubble was actually damaging to the economy, and those who promoted it, seeing the .com collapse as no big deal, didn't bother to ask why the .com collapse didn't have a massively depressive effect on the economy, and whether inflating the price of homes had anything in common.

BTW, don't buy gold.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Adventures in HD part X: 50" Plasma

So, last weekend, bought a 50" plasma. Five years ago, I'd have finished that sentence with "Boo-yah", and invited half the neighborhood over. But, well, it's not quite what you think it is. How much did it cost? About $500.

Yep, that's right. $500. And, functionally, I think it's a little better than my stepdad's 47" 1080p LCD. Bought a year ago, for about twice the price.

It's a Samsung Series 4+ 450. PN50C450. Has a USB port, but you can only view JPEGs with it.

Why so cheap? Well, in fairness, it was a display model. But, on the other hand, I saw Wal-mart has a $500 Plasma set with roughly the same specs right now, so it wasn't out of whack. Part of it is deflation - yes, I'm aware headline inflation is quite high right now, but actually, outside of a handful of admittedly important commodities, prices are plummeting, as people aren't willing to spend money on stuff any more. The grill I got for $250 three years ago costs around $150 new today. Apple isn't selling the new iPad at the same price as the old. And don't mention housing. Unless oil and/or food is a significant part of the cost of an item, you bet it's cheaper today than it was a year ago.

$500 buys you a low end 50" plasma, specifically a 720p non-networked version. It doesn't buy you an LCD at that price and size, and generally the 50" LCDs start around $200 more, and are 1080p. Why do they cost so much more? Because they're better, that's why.

Now, that statement probably takes some explanation, so let's do it. I'm going to cover a few points about both technologies, explode a few myths, and annoy a few people while I'm at it.
  • Myth: Plasma's better than LCD, because unlike the latter, it can display "true black". Reality: Unless you're in a pitch black room, the amount of ambient light is going to be several magnitudes higher than the "black" of any modern LCD panel. Realistically you will not see a difference.
  • Truth: Plasma is a fragile technology. You realize this when the guy from Best Buy warns you not to lay the TV down in your van (plasma screens are fronted by a big sheet of thin glass. A little undue pressure in one spot, and no more screen.) Despite the claim that modern sets don't "burn in", the manual for my new set was peppered with warnings. And, believe me, unless you like stretchovision, or you only ever watch 16:9 content and simply refuse to watch anything else, you will run into situations where burn-in is a risk.
  • Truth: Best Buy (or Wal-Mart, or Target, or...) is not the best place to compare plasma and LCD. Because of the aforementioned burn-in issue, plasma sets usually ship with settings that look great in a livingroom, but washed out and dark under fluorescent lights. LCD, on the other hand, can be as bright as the manufacturer wants, and usually are shipped and set up in stores with settings that make the colors really "pop". Plasma really does look great in real world settings, but looks just awful in TV showrooms.
  • A definite plus: there's no wrong angle at which to watch a plasma TV. LCD TVs generally have a little bit of range after which it starts looking ugly, though nothing like as bad as RPTVs (whose owners, in my experience, seem to be in denial about the whole thing, under the impression LCDs haven't changed since they bought calculators in the mid-eighties.)
  • Comment: Power consumption and/or heat output is not an issue in practice... today. It's not that plasma screens are as efficient, it's just there's so much electronic crap in the average set that you're as likely to get a power-hungry LCD set as a, uh, power hungry plasma. Plasma owners seem to have taken recent surveys to mean that there's no problem with plasma - well, there is, and if TV makers ever start having a race to produce the most efficient sets, then plasma's going to lose. But, right now, especially with large screen 720p plasma sets being normal on the low end...
Why do I think LCD is better? Because you can get a high contrast 1080p set for much, much, less than a plasma with the same specs with pretty much no downside beyond a slightly restricted (slightly) viewing angle range, and because they're resilient and don't suffer from burn-in issues - you don't need to watch 4:3 content either cropped or in stretchovision.

As far as the Samsung goes, we're still in the process of moving into the new house, so we haven't had a chance to spend a lot of time with it. Sound is good. Was glad to read it has a stereo passthrough for HDMI audio to a receiver, which'll help when housesitters are over (right now we have to give a long complicated set of instructions on what to switch to what.) We watched a few shows on a rabbit ears antenna, which got a good ION signal, so was able to watch a few 1980s movies in HD, and, well, it looked good, very good, I can't complain about that at all. Also nice is the fact apparently there's a thriving third party firmware for the TV - I can't imagine using it, I don't want to risk bricking the thing, but, well, it'll be interesting to see what happens with the firmware.

Love the TV. If I had unlimited funds, I'd have gone for a good network-connected LCD, but, frankly, this is more than good enough.

My new blog

So, this is where I'm going to be posting in future. I'm in the process of setting things up, I hope to copy all my old Slashdot/Multiply/LJ stuff here in the near future.